How can the path least taken spur innovation in a career? And can it help in strategic planning at the operational level?
Alanna Hughes, Head of Innovation at Per Scholas, discusses her successful career in international development and consulting. which has led her to take on leadership roles in nonprofit organizations. Alanna shares her valuable skills and experiences that have helped her drive innovation, emphasizing the importance of diverse learning approaches, embracing experimentation, and the strategic design and execution of initiatives along the way.
Innovation and leadership across sectors
After studying international development and international relations, Alanna started her career in the field of international development as a community economic development volunteer with the Peace Corps. She spent her time consulting with small businesses.
“I worked with cocoa farmers as part of a community tourism project to help them show how cocoa was commercialized on a Fairtrade market and how women made artisanal projects from cocoa in the community, thus helping them with small business skills. A lot of that was helping startup businesses as well as helping businesses grow and function properly,” says Alanna.
From there, she was given the opportunity to come back to the U.S. and work for a nonprofit called Ashoka which focuses on social entrepreneurs and their innovative ideas across the globe.
In that role, she connected with an entrepreneur who was launching a branch of his organization in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. She went on to become the founding Country Director of two organizations, Community Empowerment Solutions and Social Entrepreneur Corps.
“Those organizations were very much focused on helping women start small businesses in their communities through the lens of selling what we called Social Impact products, like solar panels, water filters, and eyeglasses and really helping them go out and be able to market these products or impact to be able to keep the income to help their families prosper,” Alanna says.
Her unique career path reshaped her career trajectory in a different way than many traditional paths that, say, start out in a big industry.
Lessons learned across sectors
Early on in her career, Alanna had to learn to think strategically even when there wasn’t already a strategy in place. She utilized her Peace Corps training and sought guidance from her mentor and boss, who happened to be a social entrepreneur. However, she acknowledged that there was still more for her to learn.
She quickly learned how to grow her skill set when it came to identifying what had to be done, what outcomes they wanted to achieve, and then piloted different strategies to get a sense of what would work.
Alanna had to be closely connected to the operational lens. She had to think and work with the community to achieve their desired outcomes which required her to be both a thinker and a doer, executing all the necessary tasks.
“I think the last lesson I want to highlight and potentially the most important is I wasn’t doing this in a vacuum. It was very much in partnership and led by community members and other individuals with whom I was working,” says Alanna.
In working collaboratively, Alanna honed in on skills like identifying the right stakeholders and listening to their ideas, bringing groups to a consensus, what to do when groups don’t agree on strategy, and the cultural implications of the environment in which you are operating.
Now, she uses this knowledge collectively to help drive innovation and encourage intrapreneurship.
Strategies to drive innovation
“When I think about innovation, one thing I often go back to is this framework called the Ambition Matrix — it’s thinking about it from whether it’s something that’s a core improvement or something that’s truly transformational that the market hasn’t seen, and we haven’t done and we want to do,” says Alanna.
Once you’ve found that truly transformational idea, you’re on the right path, but it can often be hard to reign in such big ideas to more manageable plans.
With innovation, you should typically start small. You want to be able to identify what is the change that you want to see and what is the outcome you want to achieve. Then, you can test and pilot and do more of what works to learn and grow and reach more of an effective scale.
“Innovation is not let’s just commit to a multimillion-dollar project and invest all these resources and just roll it out to the world. It’s how we can start with a much smaller budget under a much tighter timeframe and identify what it is that we need to learn to be able to gather that information to determine what our path forward is,” says Alanna.
Tip: don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Start small when bringing innovation to life. To do this, Alanna puts some of her more traditional training to use with quarter strategy — choosing what not to do just as much as choosing what to do.
When trying to whittle down the list of things to do, Alanna recommends a couple of strategies:
- Applying criteria for evaluation
Establishing and applying criteria for evaluation helps define what ideal outcomes would be. It helps decide what you will measure and what aligns with the mission, vision, budget, opportunities, and constraints.
- Logic models
Using logic models helps you to decide if you should pursue an idea and what outcome you want to achieve. To properly use a logic model, start with the end in mind and work backward to build an understanding of what you need to do.
But just knowing the right tools and strategies to use and when to use them won’t help you drive innovation alone. A much more diversified skill set is necessary to work with the more irrational aspects of strategic planning.
The importance of a versatile skill set and building intrapreneurship
When strategizing, you’re bound to come to a moment where you have to advocate for or against a plan.
“It comes down to communication, relationship, building, building trust, and utilizing relationships with others to be able to have support for a stance that you want to take and bring in their perspectives as well,” says Alanna.
To innovate, you must communicate well and understand stakeholders’ priorities. You also need authority and support to set expectations for the future.
It’s worth noting, though, that how you develop your skill set is just as versatile as the skills you develop.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I firmly believe that higher education and elite higher education is not the only pathway to success. I’m very grateful that it was my pathway, but I also think there are a lot of alternatives that make a case for being able to learn within the workplace and continue to upskill,” says Alanna.
No matter your pathway to developing these communication and relationship-building skills (among others), the development of these skills will lead to increased intrapreneurship, further driving innovation.
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